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Looking for queer traces

Updated: Apr 3

Memory presupposes knowledge. A blogpost regarding the Holocaust Memorial Day.

The best-researched topic about queer traces of life in the context of National Socialism is the persecution of homosexual men. The German Empire introduced paragraph 175 of the German criminal code in 1871, punishing homosexual acts between men. Under Nazi rule, this was further intensified, sending many gay men to concentration camps. They were marked by the pink triangle and found themselves at the bottom of the camp hierarchy. Due to intense homophobia and stigmatisation, very few Holocaust survivors ever spoke about their homosexuality again after the end of National Socialism.

Nonetheless, male homosexuality under National Socialism is relatively well documented by original records of the persecution. The situation differs for other queer identities, such as queer women and transgender people. These were not directly persecuted because of their identity, but they still did not correspond to the ideologically established National Socialist worldview either. Many were sent to the concentration camps as “asocials” as their lives differed from what National Socialism considered the norm. Lesbians were perceived as a threat as they defied heteronormativity by refusing to marry men and bear children. They are hardly mentioned in historiography and are thus made invisible. However, queer people have always existed and were therefore among the inmates of the concentration camps.

Today we have much more knowledge and a much more developed language to describe queer experiences. In the early 20th century, transgender people were referred to as “transvestites” (a term coined by Magnus Hirschfeld). A so-called “transvestite license” allowed the respective person to wear opposite-sex clothing in public without fear of repressive measures. Changes in civil status were also possible in some cases. However, this license did not protect trans people against paragraph 175 because, during the Nazi era, they were under the “suspicion of homosexuality” and thus also seen as enemies of the state.

According to the language of the time, Liddy Bacroff was a "transvestite". She rejected her assigned male gender role and lived as a woman in Hamburg (Germany). As a sex worker, she had regular sexual intercourse with men and openly admitted to this. Consequently, she was arrested several times under paragraph 175. In prison she wrote several texts called "Freedom! (The Tragedy of a Homosexual Love)” or “An Experience as a Transvestite. The adventure of a night in the transvestite bar Adlon!“.

In 1938 Bacroff applied for "voluntary castration". A coroner examined and declared her to be a "moral corrupter" and "incorrigible". In August of the same year, she was again sentenced to three years in prison followed by preventive detention as a "dangerous habitual criminal" for sex work. She was transferred to the Bremen-Oslebshausen penitentiary and, in 1941, to the Rendsburg detention center. In 1942 the nazis deported her to the Mauthausen concentration camp (Austria), where she was murdered in 1943. Much of what we know about Bacroff is based on Dr Bodie Ashton's research work:

During the Nazi era, lesbian women were not specifically persecuted because of their sexual orientation, but they were still excluded and targeted and are part of queer history. Since they did not serve the "Volksgemeinschaft", meaning being good wives and mothers, they were persecuted as "asocial" (black triangle). As there was no special detention category for queer women, it is difficult to retrace their footsteps. Patriarchal tendencies in the writing of history also marginalizes research about queer women during the Holocaust.

There are not many specific records of lesbians in concentration camps left today. However, we know a few names of lesbian women. One of them was Eleonore Behar, whose story was researched by Dr Anna Hájková, pioneer of queer Holocaust history. [1]

copyright image: Anna Hájková

The 22-years-old Jewish woman was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto (in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia) in April 1945 where she fell in love with Anna Lenji, a young Hungarian woman. Lenji did not reciprocate Behar’s feelings, but always thought fondly of her friend. Behar was working as a nurse and on her birthday, the 9th of May, Theresienstadt was freed by the Red Army. In 1947, she emigrated with her mother to Santiago de Chile where she stayed until her death in 2011. Anna Lenji still lives in Haifa (Israel).

Why are these stories important? Deviant sexual desires and genders were stigmatized in the ghettos and concentration camps; they were either not mentioned at all by survivors or portrayed as perverted monsters. It is not easy to reconstruct the history of queer people because it is very fragmented. They are invisible in history. We need a lot more research on the topic. Even the research on history of homosexual men under National Socialism is far from over.

2023 marks the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Germany and Europe from National Socialism. The memory of the crimes of National Socialism shows what can happen when hate and hate speech poison a society, when a majority becomes indifferent to the lives of others, when they allow and support exclusion and disenfranchisement.

At a time when violence against queer people is on the rise again, it is clear that there is no end to the story. We must fight for freedom, equality, and respect every day.

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